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Friday, April 22, 2016

Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry: The Hero of Lake Erie

Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, often simply referred to as Commodore Perry is a name that sounds familiar to many, but who few know anything about. First off, he is not to be confused with his younger brother Commodore Matthew C. Perry. Oliver Perry was a distinguished U.S. naval man whose career extends back to 1797 when at the tender age of 12, he sailed with his father, USN Captain Christopher Raymond Perry, to the West Indies. By early 1799 he was made a midshipman in the Navy on his father's ship the USS General Greene, and saw combat the very next year during the slave rebellion in Haiti, then a French colony. He would continue to serve in the Barbary Wars and in the Caribbean against pirates, but is best known for his actions during the War of 1812 when he earned the nickname "The Hero of Lake Erie."

Lot 3120: Historic Early 19th Century Tailcoat, Waistcoat, War Trousers, Hat, Dirk, and Eagle Head-Pommel Sword with Documentation Attributed to Hero of Lake Erie Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry
The British, as is well-known, had the world's most powerful navy at the turn of the 18th century, a position it would hold until World War II. At the beginning of that conflict, the Brits were using that naval muscle to control most of the Great Lakes, in addition to many of the connecting rivers and advantageous cities along the coasts. The Americans, with their tiny, yet frantically growing navy, was in no position to stop them. Their only hope was to either capture British ships, bring in ships from other parts of the country, or purchase already built ships and convert them into warships. No one could expect to build ships in the presence of the British Navy, could they?

It would take a miracle for a rag-tag fleet to go against the British Navy with any notion of success. Unfortunately, the problems were more widespread than a lack of able vessels. The British controlled the Great Lakes with the exception of Lake Huron, men were scarce and inexperienced, shipbuilders were absent, essentials such as rope and rigging were nonexistent, a single cannon was available, the chain of command was frustrating at best, and British and Native American enemies could attack whenever they saw fit. The scenario would be nearly comical were the consequences not so great. It was this scenario that Oliver Hazard Perry was placed in command, headquartered at the recently established naval base at Presque Isle Bay by Erie, Pennsylvania.

Oliver Hazard Perry, 1818
Perry took the helm in March of 1813, but thankfully two short months earlier William Jones had replaced Paul Hamilton as the Secretary of the Navy. Simultaneously serving as the Secretary of the Treasury, Jones had recognized the bleak situation at Presque Bay and was beginning to make the necessary changes. He ordered two corvette ships built and brought in the necessary shipwrights to oversee the task. However, even these ships were being completed under less than ideal conditions with wooden pegs being used in construction instead of scarce nails, and hulls were much thinner than standard construction warships. Haste was a necessity and it came at the price of quality ships. Cannons were en route all the way from Chesapeake Bay and not a moment too soon, as the British soon thereafter raided the foundry from whence they came.

The assignment to Lake Erie was not a dream assignment for Perry. He undoubtedly hoped for an assignment on the vast and mighty oceans to face the best the British had to offer. Instead he was shipped inland to serve as master commandant under the timid Commodore Isaac Chauncey, who was based in Sackett's Harbor, New York on Lake Ontario. With his commanding officer over 200 miles away and with no canals yet built around the daunting Niagra Falls, Perry was relatively independent. Such autonomy was an acceptable consolation for the young officer, or likely would have been until he saw the conditions of Presque Isle. His half-finished ships were there, as was the aforementioned single cannon, but the carpenters and guards he had requested had fled in fear of the British and Native American threat, or so he believed. The town of Presque Isle had deserted as well, so he was unable to recruit local workers. Taking control of Lake Erie from the British was a prerequisite for other American goals in the War of 1812, but the situation would be enough to dishearten even the stoutest optimist.

The first act for the 27-year old Perry was to set up defenses for the Isle, and send for men and supplies. Unfortunately, Commodore Chauncey has a reputation far from that of a battle-hardened sailor. Known more as mild-mannered and cautious, Chauncey often gave responses to Perry's requests that he was too busy defending Ontario, if he responded at all. As if giving no assistance to Perry was infuriating enough, Chauncey also commandeered approximately 150 of Perry's personally trained and loyal sailors, that had accompanied him from his previous command in Rhode Island. Also poaching men from Perry was a fellow Master Commandant Jesse Duncan Elliot, a "fat, sloppy, Mary-land born navy officer," who would serve as Perry's Moriarty for  the entirety of his short career. Perry had been given command on Lake Erie, a position Elliot felt entitled to not only because of a recent victory, but because Lake Erie was the venue of a prior great success. Watching the position go to Perry embittered Elliot tremendously against him. The lack of response from Perry's superiors and the undermining of his requested manpower must have been endlessly exasperating for the young man, yet he persisted. He begged, borrowed, prodded and pleaded, before eventually traveling to Pittsburgh to visit with a naval agent under the pretense of receiving supplies such as rope, canvas, and cannons. In a stroke of luck, Perry found the 50 shipbuilders and carpenters that were to be in Presque upon his arrival, but on the way back, the Navy shipped their tools on a different route that tripled their transit time. Bad luck seemed to vex him at every turn, but as every good sailor knows, winds can quickly change. After all, he had also convinced a leader of the Pennsylvania militia to assign him 500 men to guard his burgeoning shipyard.

Perry's need was dire, so when Chauncey requested his help to attack the British-held Ft. George on the Niagra River, he obliged, no doubt hoping that the Commodore would look more favorably on his situation. The United States won the battle with Perry personally leading a charge of the marines, earning the praise of Chauncey. While he could spare no new men for Perry, he did allow Perry to utilize the spoils of the battle, namely five former merchant vessels with seven cannons between them. Perry, along with 250 men and a team of oxen, were forced to lug the ships into Lake Erie against the current of the Niagra River. It took six days of exhausting, backbreaking work pulling into the wind with three British ships nipping at their heels, but the ships were hauled into the relative safety of Presque Isle Bay before the British ships could stop them. Perry noted his as "one of the hardest tasks I have ever faced," and he owed part of it to fate. At one point, a fog surrounded the ships when British crafts coming to intercept the incoming ships were only a half mile way, the natural shroud hid the newly captured fleet and the British sailed harmlessly past. By July of 1813, five short months after Perry arrived, he had his fleet. Noah Brown, the shipbuilder sent by the Navy, along with 200 men, had finished the 100-foot schooners Niagra and Lawrence, each with twenty guns, along with three other gunboats and a pilot boat. All this in a time without power tools and during the harsh winter months makes this an incredible feat. After adding cannons to the five re-purposed merchant ships, Perry now outgunned the British fleet, but lacked the 740-750 men to operate his vessels.

It was two short months prior, on June 1, 1813, that Perry's dear friend Captain James Lawrence was killed in battle when his ship the USS Chesapeake was captured by the HMS Shannon. It was his death that inspired Perry to name his flagship the USS Lawrence, and to commission a flag emblazoned with the late captain's dying words, "Don't give up the ship."

He had the motivation, he had the guns, he had the opportunities, but Perry did not have the men no matter how many impassioned letters he sent to Chauncey. Even with General William Henry Harrison imploring Perry to fight, he could only humbly reply that he would had he the men. Quotes of frequent letters from Perry to Chauncey show Perry's desperation to fight and win over the outgunned and outnumbered British fleet.

Jul 20: ‘The enemy’s fleet of six sail are now off the bar of this harbor. What a golden opportunity should we have men.’

July 23: "For God's sake and yours and mine, send me men and officers...send me officers and men and honour is within our grasp.’"

He even offered to let Chauncey take command so the Commodore might claim the victory as his own. The letters had some effect, but not as powerfully as Perry might have hoped. Several days later 70 men arrived on a ship commanded by his cousin. Comprised mostly of African-Americans and militia members, hardly any had any maritime experience. By the end of the month another 60 arrived, but many were too sick to fight. The men had come from Black Rock, home to his rival Elliot, who had been skimming the best men from the troop detachments and sending the rest on to Perry, if he sent any at all. Even the Pennsylvania militiamen who had come to guard the harbor now refused to do so, meaning Perry couldn't fight and he couldn't protect his ships while he waited. It was in this helplessness that Perry experienced a bit of luck.

The British fleet that had been taunting Perry just outside the sandbar of the Presque Isle, and simultaneously serving as a blockade, had vanished. It was July 31 when Perry was roused from slumber, received the word, and flew on deck to verify the news for himself. Only upon seeing it with his own eyes did Perry remember someone mentioning that his British counterpart, Captain Barclay, had been invited to a dinner in his honor at Port Dover, Canada. Normally, Barclay never would have given up the advantage of his blockade, but all of Perry's ships were safely behind a large sand bar that guarded Presque Isle. Barclay figured that it would be impossible for Perry to lift his 500-ton ships over the bar and into the main body of the lake. He is even quoted at his dinner as saying, "...the Yankee brigs [will be] hard and fast on the bar when I return, in which predicament it will be but a small job to destroy them." Barclay was familiar with those waters, knew the height of the bar, and assumed that Perry would never be able to raise his boats, or the water, high enough to permit escape.

What Barclay did not count on were devices called "camels." These were large, 90-foot long, rectangular pontoons that could be fastened to a ship. Much like ballast tanks on a submarine, when they are filled they descend, and when pumped empty they float, taking the ship they are attached to with it. Perry quickly positioned his fleet at the mouth of the harbor, but began work on getting his two massive brigs into the lake. It was only a difference of a few feet, the sand bar was shallowest at four and a half feet and deepest at six, but the mighty brigs needed nine.  The camels would need to lift the ships five feet at a minimum.

They frantically got to work, first attempting to lift the Lawrence with no success. Perry ordered the cannons and supplies off of the ship, but to no avail. Men in boats and on shore struggled greatly to pull the ship free, but the ship had only risen three feet. The next day, more camels were used and even the Pennsylvania militiamen came to assist, but again the Lawrence remained stuck. It would be the next morning that the flagship of the Erie fleet would finally lurch free of the mud and sand and into the Great Lake. Guns and supplies were hurriedly returned to the flagship.

The men were exhausted from the past three days' effort, but they knew Barclay could return at any moment to destroy their poorly positioned fleet. The Niagra had to be freed as well or the Americans would be outgunned. With the bad luck that could only belong to Perry, the sails of Barclay's fleet were seen on the horizon! The Lawrence had virtually no crew on it, the Niagra was lodged in the bar about to be fitted with camels, and the rest of the fleet was no match for the mighty ship. All Barclay had to do was begin their attack and the Americans were doomed. However, in the string of unbelievable miracles that also followed Perry, a wind rose in the West and turned the bow of the Lawrence and the Niagra toward Barclay's fleet, leading him to believe the Americans were attacking. To further this naval feint, Perry ordered his ships the Ariel (1/5 the size of the Lawrence) and a schooner known as the Scorpion to fire long range shots at the British, and formed the rest of the ships into a battle line, while the signal drummer aboard the Lawrence was ordered to beat the cadence to bring the men to their quarters. To the British, it certainly would have appeared and sounded as if the Americans had been lying in wait for their return. Barclay, knowing that he too was short on men, and expecting another superior warship, wisely retreated. How an experienced seaman like Barclay did not see the Niagra still stuck in the sandbar is unknown.

Imagine Perry's surprise when he suddenly received 130 sailors from Chauncey, some of them even were even experienced sailors! He was elated enough to ignore the fact that the men were under the command of rival Elliot, that the inexperienced men were "wretched," and that Elliot was taking all the best men for himself aboard the Niagra. Soon Perry would have his fight! He sailed his newly freed fleet of nine ships to Sandusky and received further manpower from Major General William Henry Harrison's Army of the Northwest before finally anchoring at Put-in-Bay, Ohio. Barclay's fleet was essentially blockaded, but he was largely OK with this as his new warship HMS Detroit still needed to be fit with cannons, sails, and rigging. The delay worked in the favor of Perry as well, whose men were racked with illness apparently brought by the new recruits.

However, the blockaded British were quickly running out of supplies, for both themselves and their 14,000 native American allies. After receiving several dozen reinforcements, Barclay's hand was forced and he sailed out into Lake Erie in search of the American fleet. Just the night before, September 9, Perry called together his officers to ensure that the tactics for the battle was well-known to all, a strategy he adopted from Admiral Horatio Nelson. It is often said that the British had superior long range guns than the American fleet, however in sheer numbers, that is not a historical fact. In terms of sheer poundage for long-guns, the British had a total broadside weight of 196 pounds compared to the American 264 pounds. However, the experienced British gunmen and the thin hulls of the American ships meant that Perry's ships would be at a distinct disadvantage in a long range fight. It was when the short range cannonades came into play that the American fleet could truly do some damage. The short range poundage of the British was a total broadside weight of 459 pounds, compared to the Americans' 936 pounds, 600 of which was in their two new ships. Perry's plan was easy to guess: get in close and let the large guns of his brigs do their deadly work. He assigned each ship its own British vessel to attack and went to bed with his ships prepped for battle.

Perry was awoken the next day to pounding on his door. Barclay's fleet had been spotted! At 0700 the fleet was ordered to hoist anchor and sail into open water, but the winds would not cooperate. Two boats were ordered to tow the Lawrence out while final preparations were made: cannon balls and canisters were prepared, wetted sand was scattered on deck to help absorb blood, while swords and guns were stationed around each of the nine ships. What breeze that did exist favored the British, but Perry was determined to fight. By 1000 the breeze now favored the Americans, though his five formerly merchant ships were a good two miles behind him. At 1100, with the British close, Perry fed his men, served a double ration of grog (a rum-based drink), raised his battle flag, and continued toward the British fleet.

The first shots were fired by Barclay at 1145 and the experienced gunners of the British fleet soon showed their prowess. The Americans, unable to close the distance with the lackluster wind, were at their mercy. The Brits picked away at the Americans for nearly an hour before the Lawrence closed the distance by 1220 and the fighting could truly begin. It started as a slugfest as the Lawrence engaged 3 British ships, but before long it did not look good for the American ship. It was soaking up enormous amounts of damage and the rapidity with which it was built soon began to play a factor. The walls were thin and the wood was green, giving little resistance to the British shot that was penetrating the hull, tearing men apart and throwing shrapnel inwards.

As the Lawrence was being torn to shreds, it was frantically throwing up every sail she had in order to close the distance so her cannonades could be brought to bare. Several desperate shots fell short of the British fleet.  Meanwhile, the Niagra, piloted by Elliot, was adhering strictly to her battle plan, engaging her designated British ship, the Queen Charlotte, with his long-range 12 pound guns. Out ranged by the Niagra, it wouldn't take long for the Charlotte to break away from the Niagra and to join the Detroit's assault on the Lawrence.

Those two ships wreaked havoc on the Lawrence for over two hours, killing dozens of American sailors. While the superior American guns aboard the flagship devastated the Detroit, the Kentucky rifleman acquired from Harrison perched in the rigging rained down terrible and accurate fire on the men aboard Barclay's vessels. Men died all around Perry while he miraculously remained unharmed and directing fire. Men who remained alive asked, "Where is the Niagra?!"  It was a question that Perry had thought to himself more than once, and that historians debate to this day. Elliot had held back the Niagra leaving it virtually untouched. Was he adhering to Perry's strict battle plan? Was he so inexperienced he could not take initiative to assist the clearly endangered ship? Or was he sacrificing the Lawrence and all her hands to settle a personal score?

The men aboard the doomed ship fought their losing battle valiantly. After three hours Sailing Master William Taylor reported that, "22 men and officers lay dead on decks and 66 wounded, every gun dismounted, carriages knocked to pieces, every strand of rigging cut off, mast and spars shot and tottering overhead in just an unimaginable wreck." Surgeons worked frantically in the belly of the ship helping men the best they could. Dr. (some sources say Surgeon's Mate) Usher Parsons wrote in his diary, "Cut off 6 legs in the cockpit, which were nearly divided by cannon balls.” Men begged to die, and others complained aloud, "Why does she (the Niagra) hang back so, out of the battle?" A midshipman had just had a tourniquet placed on a badly damaged arm when a cannonball punched through his chest. Out of  approximately 103 able bodied men, only 18 remained. By 1430 hours, Perry himself fired the final shot from the wreck that was formerly the Lawrence. After that gun was destroyed, defeat loomed large for the flagship. The British thought so too, and ceased firing to allow the ship to strike its colors.  Perry had other ideas.

He was likely filled with rage and staring at the Niagra when the brig came near the Lawrence, but did not sail between it and the British fleet. The smaller Caledonia instead made the gesture, with Elliot later ordering it out of the way so he could pass behind to fight - a futile effort that reeks of Elliot's guilty conscience. Perry placed two lieutenants and his Sailing Master in charge of the ship with full authority to do whatever it takes to save the dying and wounded. He then lowered his battle flag, but not the colors of surrender, and headed to a miraculously undamaged gig. Even with a deck littered with corpses and drenched in blood, his men cried out when they saw the flag lowered, vocalizing their opposition to what they thought was surrender. Barclay too must have breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the battle flag lowered, but the relief was to be short lived. Soon he saw Perry, flag wrapped around his shoulders, with a small number of crew men headed in the direction of the Niagra.

Had the hesitant Niagra turned and ran, the British would easily have won the battle, but with Perry showing no desire to cease the fight, Barclay had to stop him from reaching that ship. The British opened up every cannon not smashed by the Lawrence and her support ships. Shot, canister, and ball whistled past Perry's boat and splashed menacingly around her. It must have seemed like an eon to the men in that boat, but finally they reached the Niagra. Two things had finally given out: the accuracy of the British long-guns, and Perry's bad luck. Exhausted and certainly covered in gunpowder and gore, Perry climbed aboard the ship and was greeted by Elliot saying, "How is the day going?"

Perry showed great restraint in not killing the man, after watching his men slaughtered and his flagship splintered. He instead likely snarled the order to bring up the gunboats, and Elliot, all to happy to remove himself from Perry's presence, readily obliged the command that could have easily been performed by a junior officer. Elliot was likely surprised to even see Perry alive after the pounding taken by the Lawrence. The command given by Perry was more about conveying a message to Elliot: "Your ship now belongs to me." Elliot vanished for the rest of the battle by pretending to be ill in bed.

The British certainly expected Perry to surrender aboard the functional ship, but instead soon saw the gunboats moving into position around the Niagra, now headed directly at their fleet. Nearly all of the British first line of command had been injured or killed in the fighting, including Barclay, who having received two injuries, was finally taken down below on the Detroit after a long range shot from one of the American schooners sent shrapnel into his back. When the lesser-experienced 2LT George Inglis, who had assumed command from Barclay, saw the Niagra inbound nearly perpendicular to their line, he thought it best to present his broadside to the incoming ship. However, the remaining rigging did not cooperate and instead sent the Detroit into a collision with the Queen Charlotte where the remaining rigging bound the ships together. They were sitting ducks as the Niagra's bow crossed their own, and spewed death from each broadside into the hulls of the British ships from less than 100-yards. The 32-pounders loaded with ball and grapeshot mercilessly punched ragged holes in ship and man alike, as the Niagra slowed down to increase its time spent in optimum range. Kentucky sharpshooters again riddled British sailors with musketfire. After passing through the British line, Niagra turned its attention to the other ships, her broadsides still blazing and pouring hellfire from her gunports. The cannon fire was so devestating that the crew aboard the HMS Lady Prevost deserted her deck, leaving only commanding officer Lt. Edward Buchan to face the American ship.

"Wounded and driven temporarily insane, Buchan leaned over the rail, screaming. Seeing that, Perry ordered his gunners to avoid Lady Prevost."

Running low on ammunition, Perry decided to go for the knockout blow. Intending to board the Queen Charlotte, he decided to take advantage of its entanglement with the Detroit, which could not fire at the Niagra without first hitting the Charlotte that lay between them. Instead of boarding, he poured shots into the sides of the Charlotte, which had the added benefit of passing through that ship and carrying their destruction into the gravely wounded Detroit.  The Queen Charlotte soon lowered her flag in surrender, and the Detroit, already impaired by the Lawrence, was all but adrift after the subsequent punishment from Niagra.

Greatly outgunned, other ships surrendered in turn or fled. Those that ran, were soon captured by the American schooners. The battle had taken just shy of four hours, but in roughly fifteen minutes Perry had claimed victory out of almost certain defeat at the hands of the greatest navy on the planet. In a famously brief message to General Harrison, Perry wrote the following on the back of a torn envelope:

"We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner, & one sloop. Yours, with very great respect and esteem O.H. Perry."

The battle was intense and hard fought on each side. The condition of each participant's ships was met with horror by those who saw them the next morning, but Perry became a national hero. Without their fleet on the Great Lakes, the British presence in Michigan was able to be pushed out by Harrison's army into Canada. Songs were written of Perry, towns named after him, a memorial eventually raised, and Perry even received his own quarter in 2013.

The items offered in the lot by Rock Island Auction Company are the tailcoat, waistcoat, trousers, bicorn hat, dirk, and sword attributed to Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. They are accompanied by documentation stating that they were procured from direct descendants of the Perry family, who possessed them until 1989. Our official description states that at that time they were "sold to Revolutionary War documents collector Stuart Goldman who immediately sold and delivered the items to Charles Sanderson who has retained the items since March 3, 1989. They were stored for many years in the Newport Public Library." As with all items, we encourage collectors to do their own research and come to their own conclusions, but this incredible set of  artifacts has a history tied to one of the most important names in American naval history and arguably the top hero of the War of 1812.

- Written by Joel R. Kolander


Friday, April 15, 2016

Swords with Incredible Stories

With all the incredible swords in this auction, writing an article to highlight them all is almost a fallacy in itself. Multiple swords discussed below would have easily earned their own article were time not an issue. Alas, with the auction a mere two weeks away, brevity becomes one's ally. That said, let's get down to business and inspect some of these historic and fabulously ornate swords.

Lot 181: Historic Diamond Monogrammed Honor Sword with Case and Extra Scabbard, Attributed as the Property of Henry Humphrey, Maine Colonel and American Consul to Alexandria, Formerly of the Notable Collections of Philip Medicus and Norm Flayderman

Even as recently as our 2015 December Premiere Auction we've seen some amazing swords here at RIAC. However, a sword with diamonds mounted on the scabbard certainly sets a new benchmark in elaborate craftsmanship. This jaw-dropping sword will grab your eye from across the room and not let go until you take a closer look.  Fittingly placed in an elegant case lined with navy velvet, the sword comes with two scabbards. One is a brown, "everyday" scabbard with a body of brown lacquered steel, finely crafted gilt brass upper and lower hooks, and a wonderfully engraved tip protector and throat, both also of gilt brass. It is a supremely handsome piece.

The other scabbard is undoubtedly for formal occasions or ceremonies. All furniture on the scabbard is elaborately sculpted and the whole of its body is gilt brass. Most notable is the center suspension band featuring a large sculpted wreath with "US" at its center, the letters of which are accentuated with 27 diamonds. With the copious engraving and sculpted figures, one could write an article on the embellishments of the scabbard and sword alone! Speaking of the sword, let's not give it short shrift. As one can see in the first photo of this article, the guard is incredibly elaborate gilt bronze web of figures, bands, sculpted "US" letters, and accented gems. The grips are a scale-carved mother of pearl with golden star accents.

The sword was purchased by one Henry B. Humphrey, allegedly from Tiffany & Co., for $270. Little is known of Humphrey other than he was a Maine militia officer and there are records of him being assigned by the president as the American Consul in Alexandira, Egypt in 1846. Some deeper investigation awaits the lucky collector who adds this to their collection. The name of the article may be "Swords with A Story," but this blade's tale has yet to be fully revealed. However, as you read on to see the finely adorned swords and learn of the brave, intelligent, and successful men they were created for, think of this: if those incredible men earned those swords for their heroic deeds, what must have Humphrey accomplished to receive this piece, arguably the most lavish of the sale. I urge you all to view the item listing for this magnificent sword, it truly proves that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Lot 1068: Historic Cased Civil War Era Ball, Tompkins & Black Sword, Presented by the Governor of Illinois to General John Cook for Gallant Action at the Siege of Fort Donelson

Our next sword is another beauty, but thankfully more history is known about its origins than the previous lot. This Ball, Tompkins & Black blade is a Civil War era treasure and was presented by Governor of Illinois Rich Yates to General John Cook. Cook is the son of Daniel P. Cook, the namesake of Cook County, IL, which holds the city of Chicago. The presentation placard on the scabbard indicates that this sword was presented to Cook for "gallant conduct at Fort Donelson." By 1863 then-Colonel Cook's forces were attached to those of General Ulysses S. Grant as the future president's star was beginning to rise. They had participated in several battles together, including Shiloh, when in February of 1863, the Union forces began the Siege of Fort Donelson, a Confederate fortification near the Tennessee-Kentucky border that limited access to the Cumberland River.

Union gunboats had been driven back by the fort's batteries, yet troops surrounded the Confederates. Often times Union troops would go without campfire during the cold February nights for fear of giving up their position to the Rebel guns. However, after 2 full days of siege, the Confederates attempted to break free via a surprise attack. Cook and his men held an important flank, exposed themselves to incredible amounts of fire, and Cook himself had three horses shot out from under him. The Confederates were remarkably close to their goal, but pulled back to the fort. That night, Confederate commander Brigadier General John B. Floyd and his second in command, Brig. Gen. Gideon J. Pillow, each made their excuses, relinquished command, and fled across the river. Brig. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner would eventually agree to the Grant's terms of unconditional surrender, giving the Union and important victory. Courtesy of this incredible provenance, the sword has been displayed at several museums, and is accompanied by much research on General Cook, his military service, and personal life.

Gold and engraving abound on the blade and are highlighted by brilliant nitre blue fields. The use of bright and satin grays expands the palette even further while providing a contrast in backdrop for the luxurious embellishments. The grip is sculpted from a single piece of metal and shaped to be a mustachioed Roman legionnaire with his horse hair plumed helmet and uniform.

Lot 1124: Historic Horstmann & Son/Weyersberg Etched Damascus American Officers Sword with Silver Grip, Sculpted Furniture and Scabbard Inscribed to Medal of Honor Winner Henry W. Lawton, Veteran of the Civil War, Indian Campaigns, Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War

Nearly three years to the day after Cook engaged in the battle at Ft. Donelson, another presentation sword in this auction was being presented to Lt. Col Henry Ware Lawton. If that name sounds familiar, it's because he is often credited with the capture of the Apache leader Geronimo. The Winchester 1886, serial no. 1 presented to Lawton for this achievement is also appearing in this sale. If you've read our previous article on Lawton, you know he was an accomplished career military man and Medal of Honor recipient.

This sword is further proof of his military successes. Besides the fact that they didn't present swords to poor military performers (who were also often dead), the scabbard's suspension bands and tip are all inscribed with Lawton's extensive battle record. They also state that the sword was presented to Lawton "From the Officers and Men of the 30th Indiana Infantry Regt. Vol." The opposite sides are adorned with sculpted brass figures; from hilt to point they depict Columbia, a patriotic motif, and an American soldier carrying a flag. The guard also enjoys many sculpted figures such as an eagle head and laurel branches, which all protect the German silver grip that has been wrapped with brass wire.

Right side
Lot 3139: Historic Ball, Thompson & Black Presentation Grade Sword with Gilt Silver Figural Hilt and Scabbard Inscribed to William H. Bissell, Colonel in the Mexican-American War, Veteran of the Battle of Buena Vista, and Governor of the State of Illinois

The blade you see above belonged to a man who did it all in terms of serving his country. William H. Bissell began his career as a school teacher and doctor, but was persuaded to go into politics. He began by first practicing law and had achieved the office of a prosecutor in St. Clair County, IL by 1844, but two short years later he joined the 2nd Illinois Volunteer Infantry as a private at the start of the Mexican-American War. He would quickly become colonel of the regiment and engage Santa Anna's forces in February 1847 at the Battle of Buena Vista where his actions, even in a highly disciplined retreat, earned him praise from top military men. After the short war, Bissell returned home, resumed his law practice and was soon elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Once there his anti-slavery leanings caused him to butt heads with his fellow Democrats, even to the point of accepting a duel from fellow Buena Vista veteran Jefferson Davis.

This sword would have been presented to Bissell after the Mexican-American War.

Long story short, Bissell was upset at remarks made by a Virginia Democrat. He proceded to give an hour long speech to the delight of his allies, but that particularly incensed the future President of the Confederacy. Davis challenged Bissell to a duel, knowing that Northerners often refused duels and frequently took oaths to not participate in them (Bissell was one of these). To Davis' surprise, Bissell not only accepted, but as the challenged party exercised his right to choose the weapons. He selected military muskets, loaded with ball and buckshot at point blank range. In other words, "I don't care if I die, but you're definitely going to die." Several parties received wind of the challenge and attempted to intervene between Davis's and Bissell's seconds, and eventually the duel was cancelled. One legend says that President Zachary Taylor, another Buena Vista veteran, had to personally intervene, while other sources say that Davis wisely "accepted further explanation" of the offending remark and backed down. In any case, given Taylor's brief presidency, we can reason that the said interaction took place between March 4, 1849 and July 9, 1850.

Bissell would hold several more Congressional offices as both an Independent and a Republican (despite previously serving as a Democrat), and even as the Governor of Illinois before dying of pneumonia in 1860. This blade is a fitting tribute to the former Colonel, congressman, and governor. The gilt and etched blade is covered in decorative panels of weapons, scrollwork, patriotic motifs, Greek mythology, symbols of the Mexican-American War, and even a scene over 7-inches long portraying infantry and cavalry marching outside a walled city. The grip and pommel are made from a single piece of engraved & gold-washed silver, with the pommel featuring two faces back-to-back. Read our official description in the auction listing for more details about this wonderful sword.

Each side of the pommel shows its own face.

Lot 3133: Historic John Bailey Revolutionary War Era Silver-Mounted Officer's Lion Pommel Sword with "ANDREA FARARA" Marked Blade and Presentation Inscribed Scabbard Plate

After some of the luxurious dress swords that have been featured in this article, one might find this sword to be relatively plain. That would be partially correct as this is not dress sword, but one intended for actual combat. It is typical of those carried by American and British officers in the American Revolution and the French and Indian War. What makes it atypical is its superior quality, embellishments, and high condition.

This is a sword crafted by John Bailey who was a well-known cutler (sword/knife maker) in the Revolutionary War era and even had the distinct honor of forging a silver-hilted hunting sword for George Washington, referred to since as his "War Sword." The markings of "ANDREA FARARA" on the blade at one time indicated a superior quality of blade.  Farara was an Italian bladesmith that lived in Scotland whose excellence was known far and wide. Unfortunately, he lived in the 16th & 17th centuries, not the late 1700s. The presence of his name on this blade can likely be attributed to that renowned quality and the prestige that would have come from possessing one of his swords, even decades after his death.

Even though it was meant for battle, the sword still has finer features rare to swords of the period. The sword uses silver for its guard, counterguard, and pommel which is in the shape of a lion's head. This use of silver in combination with the antique ivory grip show that this sword did not belong to just any soldier, but was the property of a field grade officer. One might think the blade to be in "lesser" condition than others shown here, but make no mistake, historical context is everything. In a similar vein, Colt Walker revolvers always saw hard use, and those that exist today are far from one would call "Excellent" condition. Likewise, swords intended for use would have seen incredibly harsh conditions and so to see one survive today in as fine a condition such as this, let alone with embellishments befitting an officer, is an incredible opportunity.

According to the plate mounted to the remaining 6-inches of the leather scabbard, the sword was once the property of Captain Thomas Buchanan of the 1st Regiment of the Pennsylvania line. He took part in numerous battles in the Revolutionary War including the Siege of Boston, the New York Campaign, the Battle of Trenton, the Second Battle of Trenton, the Battle of Princeton, the Battle of Barleywine, and others. After his military service he became the sheriff of Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. According to the plate on the other side of the scabbard, this very sword was later presented in 1850 to a presumed descendant of General (formerly Captain) Buchanan, Robert Buchanan.

This sword in its fine condition, with its officer-grade embellishments, and links to a documented soldier of the Revolutionary War combine to make it a incredible piece of American history and an amazing collector's item.

Honorable Mentions

Lot 137: Historic and Identified Emerson & Silver Staff and Field Officer Sword with Scabbard Inscribed to Captain Richard Foster of the First Regiment, New Jersey Volunteers, Fatality of the "Bloody Angle" at Spotsylvania Courthouse, with Display Case and Research

Lot 1419: Rare Historic Presentation Royal Navy Officer' Sword to Admiral Fredrick Seymour for his Service in the Anglo-Egyptian War

Lot 1418: Exceptional Weyersberg & Stamm Solingen Production Gold Washed and Etched Damascus Sword, with Presentation Markings, Case and Medals

Lot 3152: Unique N.P. Ames Gilt Officers Sword with Republic of Mexico and American Navy Markings

I hope seeing some of the outstanding history that is available in this auction lights a fire in you to find out what else is contained in this endlessly educational sale. The best part is, Rock Island Auction Company specializes in firearms, so if we have this much history in swords, imagine what you'll find when it comes to guns! If swords and knives are your area of interest, please click here to see all the lots in the auction containing those items. If history is more your passion, head over to our YouTube Channel or read some of our previous blog posts for more in-depth analysis on a wide variety of items. We can't wait to share what's in store.

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Golden Luger: A Gift Between Two Nazis Who Changed History

Lot 1489: Exceptional and Historic Nazi 1939 Mauser Factory Engraved and Gold Plated Presentation Luger Semi-Automatic Pistol Given to the Nazi Ambassador Franz von Papen by Foreign Minister of the Reich Joachim von Ribbentrop with Authentication from a Mauser Factory Consultant

History is a funny thing. As hard as we humans try to document it, the facts of the matter only occasionally prevail, rarely survive, and are often up to interpretation. Much like human memory itself, we often serve as storytellers, making our own omissions and exaggerations instead of acting as stern and fact-obsessed archivists. Each camp has its own validity. The "archivists" often state that the history speaks for itself and needs no embellishment, while the "storytellers" often excuse their inaccuracies by saying it makes the history approachable, relatable, and easier to imagine those fantastic moments that stitch together the tapestry of our past.

Knowing what we do about the human memory, and our suspect ability to accurately document history, it should come as no surprise that history is often told selectively. Things are attributed to more famous names in history, while lesser known names lie in their wake, largely forgotten. This is an article about two of those lesser known names and a brilliant Luger pistol that passed between them.

The Luger itself is a Mauser manufacture pistol that began its life rather uneventfully. According to accompanying documents written by Dr. Rolf Gminder, a consultant to the Mauser-Werkes factory who had personally viewed the pistol, it was originally one of any number of Lugers in the existing stock of police guns. However, this gun was selected for something more. It began with the highest quality engraving Germany had to offer. The typical "oak leaf and acorn" pattern takes on a distinct variation with more flowing vinous scroll work and geometric shapes than typically seen on the more deep relief engraved Walther PP and PPK pistols that often served as Nazi presentation pistols.

The dark walnut grips have also been carved with the oak and acorn pattern, but while the right grip shows fine checkering in its center, the left grip bears a presentation plaque that reads,

Seiner Exzellenz
Herrn Botshafter Franz von Papen
in tiefster Verehrung
am 11ten November 1940
überreicht von Joachim von Ribbentrop
des Deutchen Reiches

That translates to:

His Excellency
the Honorable Ambassador Franz von Papen
in deepest dedication
on 11th November 1940
given by Joachim von Ribbentrop
Foreign Minister of the German Reich

Many presentation arms leave a mystery about who presented the gun and who received it. Sometimes they are decorated with no inscription at all, while others only bear the cryptic monogram of their recipient. This pistol leaves no such riddles and instead offers us an excellent starting point to explore who these men were, what they did, and the background of this extravagant Luger.

Franz von Papen

1936 portrait of Papen
Thankfully, Franz von Papen is not one of those names lost to time or a German military man of whom little information remains. That said, his deeds place him far from a spot of honor in history. In the simplest terms, Papen was a politician. Born in 1879  to a wealthy family, he entered the military early on, and by the Great War was already a military attaché in Washington. However, at the behest of the U.S. Government he was recalled in 1915 after being implicated as a spy and saboteur. After serving the rest of the war for Germany, he entered politics and found his true calling. He served in the Prussian Parliament for 11 years, before being surprisingly appointed Chancellor in 1932 by President Paul von Hindenburg, who had been undeniably influenced by General Kurt von Schleicher, an old friend of Papen's who had great influence with the German president.

Once in a position of power, Papen achieved some impressive feats considering the near-complete lack of support he had within the Reichstag. Instead he achieved his changes through authoritarian rule. In an effort to gain the support of the Nazi party, he repealed the ban on their paramilitary Sturmabteilung (SA). He also had Germany's debt under the Treaty of Versailles essentially erased. In this trend of removing previous laws, Papen also staged a coup and deposed the Social Democratic government of Prussia using police, and declared himself its leader. These authoritarian measures are marked by many as setting the stage for the rise of the Third Reich, a charge echoed in his Nuremberg trial.

Taken from a larger photo, Papen can be seen
sitting in the back seat of Hitler's vehicle.
After the coup, he called for a national election and was surprised when he still had no support from the Reichstag. Instead, the Nazis seized the moment and gained 123 seats, giving them a majority in the governing body. Papen planned to dissolve the democracy, and even had advance permission from Hindenburg. However, the Nazis had other ideas. Rolling with the tide, Papen then tried to work with the Nazis, but found them unbending and so resigned as chancellor after the November 1932 elections. After some major politicking and maneuvering between President Hindenburg, Gen. Schleicher, and Papen, with no one able to firm up support from the Nazis and the Social Democrats, Papen worked relentlessly to undermine his former friend Schleicher to give Adolf Hitler the chancellorship while he served as vice chancellor. It would not take long for Hitler and new Reichstag President Herman Göring to marginalize Papen and his office, eventually executing "The Night of Long Knives," a purging of opposing political and military ideologies that threatened Hitler's new found power. Papen would survive the event, later serving as an ambassador to Austria and Turkey before being captured by the Allies in April of 1945. He was prosecuted at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial, found not guilty of the charges of "conspiracy to prepare aggressive war" and "conspiracy to commit crimes against peace," served eight years hard labor by a West German court, and was finally released & fined in 1949 on appeal. His memoirs were published in 1952 and he died in 1969.

Largely due to his Nuremberg Trial, Papen is often remembered as paving the way for Nazi power, facilitating the annexation of Austria, and being well aware of Nazi ideology as he did so.

Joachim von Ribbentrop

If Papen paved the way for the Nazi party to take power in Germany, then Joachim von Ribbentrop turned that paved highway into the Autobahn. He too served in the Great War, as a hussar on the Eastern front, but afterward he resumed the relatively normal life of a sparkling wine (Sekt) salesman until he became independently wealthy by marriage. He met Hitler in 1932 as a businessman thanks to an introduction from a fellow former hussar, and shortly thereafter he and his wife joined the NSDAP (Nazi Party). He entered the political arena by offering to serve as a representative between Hitler and his old battle buddy, Papen. Ribbentrop was not liked by many Nazis: he was a flatterer, a yes man, had no political experience, married into his fortune, and even the nobility of his name (the "von") had come from an aunt that Ribbentrop had convinced to formally adopt him for that purpose alone. Despite his lack of the "proper" credentials in the eyes of many Nazis, Ribbentrop would serve as Hitler's chief adviser on foreign affairs, and would soon prove his worth.

In short, Ribbentrop would put into play numerous policies that placated the world and gave Nazi Germany numerous advantages in the years leading up to World War II. Here is a brief list of his diplomatic agreements and similar achievements.
  • 1934 - Helped quell France's protests against Germany's request to re-arm itself after the Great War. He also visited England and Rome to hasten any sanctions from those countries. In turn, Hitler promotes him to "Reich Minister Ambassador-Plenipotentiary at Large."
  • 1935 - Negotiates the Anglo-German Naval Agreement (AGNA), which permanently limited the Kriegsmarine to 35% of the total tonnage of the Royal Navy, far beyond the limits set in the Versailles Treaty. The British expectation was that this would limit German military capacity, while the Germans expected it to strengthen a desired alliance between the two countries and against France and the Soviet Union. Britain did not consult with France or Italy prior ratifying the AGNA.
  • 1935 - Arranges for good will visits between groups of World War I veterans. By sending German veterans abroad and accepting foreign veterans on German soil, a "never again" spirit was portrayed and did much to alleviate suspicions against Germany and its wish to re-arm itself.
  • 1936 - The Anti-Comintern Pact is signed with Japan, essentially forming an alliance between the two countries should one of them be attacked by the Soviet Union. Italy would join the pact in 1937, while Poland declined. This alliance was especially unusual given Germany's previous policies of allying itself with China and its general distrust of Japan.
  • 1936-1938 - Spent time unintentionally and permanently fouling German relations with England. He was called by various Britains: pompous, conceited, stupid, impossible, not too intelligent, insufferable, absent (which also earned him the nickname "The Wandering Aryan"), a stupid ass, and also managed to personally insult King George VI.
  • 1938 - Ribbentrop promoted to Foreign Minister, symbolizing a German shift from cautious diplomacy seeker toward an aggressive war-time nation.
  • 1939 - Pact of Steel is made with Italy. The two will come to one another's aid in case of war.
  • 1939 - The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Also known as the German-Soviet Non-aggression Pact, it assured non-aggression between the USSR and Germany. but broke the Anti-Comintern Pact of 1936 by signing a deal with the communists. In no uncertain terms, this was Ribbentrop's crowning achievement and left little standing in the way for Hitler to attack Poland. This was handy since Ribbentrop's extreme bullying of Polish foreign diplomats all but ensured that Poland would have to be conquered to relinquish the territories that Germany desired.
  • 1940 - German-Japanese Pact is signed to replace the Anti-Comintern Pact. Ribbentrop sends a telegram to Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister, stating that the alliance was for protection against the United States and from not the Soviet Union.

Despite being hated by his fellow Nazis and nearly every foreign diplomat he ever met, Ribbentrop
almost single-handedly managed to stall the entire world from acting against Germany as they prepared to conquer Europe. This is quite an accomplishment considering that the ink on the Versailles Treaty had only dried 20 years prior and the memory of the Great War still hung fresh in the mind of every nation it touched. After the war, Ribbertrop also was a defendant at the Nuremberg Trials, but unlike Papen, he was convicted on four counts and sentenced to death. He had been charged with crimes against peace, deliberately planning a war of aggression, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Because Göring had committed suicide before he could be hung, Ribbentrop was the first of the defendants to have his death sentence carried out.

One aspect of the relationship between these two comrades in arms remains for a dedicated collector or historian to investigate. This pistol is dated on the grip as presented on the November 11, 1940. However, there is a documented squabble between the two men that took place sometime in, or just after, April 1939, when Papen was the newly appointed Ambassador to Turkey. It turns out that Papen, the former Chancellor, felt he should be able to take his communications directly to Hitler instead of through Ribbentrop, something he was accustomed to when he served as Ambassador to Austria. It has been written that this spat ended the friendship that extended back nearly two decades.

Had the two men reconciled by 1940, even if only out of political necessity? Was their falling out misrepresented as more serious than it was? It is possible, though not entirely plausible, that the pistol was already in the works when Papen was Ambassador to Austria. After all, even though he was dismissed as the Austrian Ambassador on February 4, 1938, he had arranged the February 12 meeting at Berchtesgaden between Hitler and Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg that eventually led to the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Germany, which was signed into law on March 13. This event pleased Hitler greatly.

However, from just prior to the 1938 Anschluss until the 1940 presentation seems like an exceptionally long turnaround time for a standard police pistol that had only to be embellished. It is perhaps more likely that the pistol was ordered to commemorate Papen's new position as the Ambassador to Turkey which he assumed on April 29, 1939. This makes much more sense since it is also known that Ribbentrop had been lobbying for Papen to receive that position since losing the Austrian ambassadorship. Given the dates between Papen's new position and timeframe of the fight, he could not have held the position long prior to their rift.  Six months is a much more plausible timeframe for a finely embellished, presentation Luger.

Despite being two men rarely heard of outside of German history or World War II educational settings, they had quite a profound impact on their country and the world. One paved the way for the Nazis to come to power, while the other pacified country after country in the name of peace, all the while preparing for war. The fact that these two men were brothers in arms who went on to be high ranking Nazis is fascinating enough. When you consider that these same individuals played huge roles in amplifying the power of Nazi Germany, and are both listed on the same classic German pistol, a true treasure of history exists. Their names may not be as infamous, but their significance cannot be discounted.

This historic well-preserved German artifact is just one of the dozens of incredible German military pieces in our April Premiere Firearms Auction. From the incredible rarities, prototypes, and high condition arms from The Robert "The Bear" Bretherton Collection (please see below video), to the incredibly well preserved uniforms and helmets in the Putnam Green/Sycamore Collection, this auction will have it all.  Other highlights include a Krieghoff Second model FG42 machine gun, an extremely rare M.Kb.42(H) assault rifle - a predecessor to the StG44, a cased presentation copy of Mein Kampf covered completely in Amber tile and silver furniture, an authentic, original uniform from the Fallschirm-Panzer "Herman Göring" Division, a Nazi Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross (with oak leaves) war medal, the entire evolution of the Walther P38, and a presentation Walther PP given to SS Untersturmfuhrer Maximilian Grabner. It's a fantastic time to be a collector!

-Written by Joel R. Kolander


Bloch, Michael. Ribbentrop. New York: Crown, 1992. Print.

Friday, April 1, 2016

What is a Wheellock, Anyways?

Lot 1297: 17th Century Italian Masterpieces: Beautiful, Important and Well Documented High Art Pair of Mannerist Relief Chiseled and Gold Gilt Wheelock Belt Pistols

Many consider the development of semi-automatic firearms in the 20th and late 19th centuries to be the last great boom of gun design, and until the development of the next viable technology or ignition system, those people may very well be right. Unfortunately, all current contenders such as caseless ammunition, lasers, and rail guns, all seem distant prospects at best. However, to not acknowledge a coming technology that will eventually usurp the semi-automatic, cartridge-firing firearm as we know it is short-sighted, but I digress. I write not to talk about the most recent evolution in firearms, but one of the oldest. While semi-automatics have given rise to the most recent bounty in gun design, said bounty is far from the first. Not even half a century earlier, inventors were clamoring over themselves to create the next best cartridge loading firearms, and prior to that people had been coming up with a nearly inexhaustible array of ideas to carry more firepower using a percussion firing system.

Before any of those revolutions or innovations could occur many prerequisite steps had to be taken, one of which is the nearly forgotten wheellock. In the grand scheme of firearm development, wheellocks find their origins in the 15th century, just after the matchlock and before the snaplock (and the other many versions of flintlock arms).

Lot 306: Beautiful Cased Exhibition/Offering Grade Japanese Matchlock Pistol

Matchlocks, as you may know, set a standard for centuries to come. A spring loaded "arm" (which has gone by many names), slams the ignition source, a "match," into a small, waiting pan of gunpowder located outside the barrel. This ignites the powder charge in the pan, the flames of which carry through a small hole in the barrel which leads to a larger charge of propellant situated behind a projectile. Then comes the fun part.

The match or "slow match," was essentially a burning rope saturated with potassium nitrate. It had to be kept burning and when one desired to fire the gun, they could manually expose the priming pan, pull a lever (and eventually some newfangled device called a "trigger"), and the match would be rapidly lowered into the waiting gunpowder. This system had numerous drawbacks, and nearly all revolved around the match. As mentioned earlier, it had to be kept burning, lest the user end up with little more than a big stick at the moment of truth. This made the weapons especially susceptible to inclement weather. The ever-smoldering match also had numerous ways to give away the position of the user: it glowed at night, sent up smoke during the day, and gave a distinct burning aroma that could warn those not able to see the user.

As if that weren't enough, the presence of lit, smoldering matches around the large amounts of required gunpowder was far from ideal. Matchlocks also required large amounts of their namesake match. Frequently, a lit match end would be extinguished in the violent motion of firing, so both ends were kept lit. To keep men armed with matchlocks ready to fire for any length of time necessitated a great deal of match, which was one more supply that would need to be transported, stored, kept dry, and carried by the user. The alternative was to not have the matches lit at all times, which was an obvious determent to quickly bringing the weapon to bear. Matchlocks could also not be concealed under garments or carried safely in a belt. A great number of people would benefit if that burning match weren't required to operate the gun.  Enter the wheellock.
Lot 1290: Very Fine Pair of Early 17th Century Saxon Wheellock Horse Pistols of Noteworthy Length by Hans Stockmann

The wheellock was the first firearm to self-ignite its propellant. Removing nearly every disadvantage of the matchlock, but greatly increasing the complexity of the gun, the wheellock was incredibly time consuming and expensive to produce, thus limiting its spread and prevalence. These guns were made well before the advent of modern machining and thus most guns were painstakingly handmade with each part being forged or chiseled from scratch. It all but ensured only the wealthy would be able to enjoy the new technological developments. These guns were not only tools, they were status symbols, a fact easy to observe in the fine embellishments present in these early pistols. These ornamentations, occurring in the Late Renaissance period, were indicative of the emphasis on art and advances in technique that had recently swept Europe. Their artistry and beauty is also a primary reason for their survival to the current day.

Lot 1298: Finely Engraved Small Bore Wheelock Rifle with Extensive Scrimshawed and Mother of Pearl Stock Inlays

How it Works

In short, a wheellock works by pressing a piece of pyrite (not flint as indicated below) against a spinning, serrated steel wheel to generate sparks and ignite gun powder.

This wheellock diagram is hosted multiple places online, so we are unable to credit the original creator.

To fire a wheellock pistol, one would first need to load it as with any muzzle loading arm. Then the wheel must be charged. In the photos already shown, note that a large square lug projects out of the center of each wheel. Using a special wrench or "spanner" to act on the lug, one turned the wheel against spring tension until it caught a sear, which secured the now taut wheel.

The aforementioned pyrite is held in a clamp atop a spring-charged arm called the "dog" that extends from the lock plate (Note: On the preceding matchlocks this lever was referred to as a "serpentine" and in later flintlock designs as a "cock" or hammer).  While loading, the dog would be pulled muzzle-ward to the "safe" position - the idea of a "safety"position for this arm was another innovation that took place during the life of the wheellock. Unlike the more ubiquitous flintlock "cock" designs we see today, dogs differed in two significant ways. The first is that the dog does not spring back to slam the pyrite against the steel. Instead, the dog is placed atop of the flash pan cover under tension, so that the moment the pan cover is removed the pyrite will contact the spinning steel. The second is that the dog operates in the reverse direction one is perhaps accustomed to seeing, by swinging from the muzzle toward the user.

Lot 1295: Pair of Wheellock Pistols with Extensive Renaissance Revival Scrimshaw Inlays

As shown in the moving diagram above, it was when the dog was pressing the pyrite on to the flash pan cover that it was ready to fire. Presuming that flash pan was primed with powder, pulling the trigger of a wheellock released the tension on the serrated wheel, allowing it to spin. Then, nearly instantaneously, the gun cammed back the flash pan cover, allowing the pyrite to fall onto the already spinning steel, sending the desired sparks into the flash pan.

What Replaced the Wheellock?

Short answer: Flintlocks.
Long Answer: The numerous designs of firearms that featured an ignition system that operated by striking flint onto a piece of steel. While most folks simply call these "flintlocks," there are numerous designs with even more numerous small yet important innovations. They go by names such as snaplock, snaphance or snaphaunce, miquelet, doglock, Baltic lock, and "true" flintlock, and others. In common parlance, they are all "flintlocks," even though many of those designs lack all the features of what is technically considered a true flintlock.

Flintlocks were simpler machines, and therefore, easier and cheaper to produce. From the early 1600s until the early 1800s flintlocks dominated the globe as the weapon of choice to the world's most powerful armies. After that, Forsyth's invention of a rudimentary percussion based ignition system marked the beginning of the end for the fearsome flintlock.

Lot 1296: Incredibly Scarce, Documented Superposed Saxon Wheelock Pistol Formerly of the Saxon Electorial Armories Dresden

Wheellock pistols produced a large number of innovations that surpassed their own ignition system and would continue to affect firearms for the next three centuries.  That's an incredible legacy that remains untouchable save for the inventions of gunpowder and the barrel. Due to their ability to be concealed, wheellocks also hold the dubious distinction of being the earliest firearm to have documented gun control laws passed against it. In 1517, laws that banned the wheellock were decreed by Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, and by 1584 they were used in several early high profile assassinations including what is popularly known as the first assassination of a head of state by a handgun. However, even the earliest recorded assassination by firearm, that of James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray, on January 23, 1570 by James Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh, while not specifically noted in history as a wheellock, is depicted as such in at least one instance, shown below. In full disclosure, it is also inaccurately reported as a "firelock" (a.k.a. matchlock), and seen in one 1890 illustration as a flintlock.

"James Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh in the act of assassinating The Earl of Moray at Linlithgow" By G. Cattermole (Leitch Ritchie. Scot and Scotland. 1835.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Considering their significance, these firearms are relatively unknown to many gun enthusiasts today. Most of their acclaim today is virtue of their incredible visual appeal owed to the exhaustive levels of artistry present. The guns' dogs were carved into any number of animals, mythical creatures, gods, or deceptively difficult geometric shapes. Plates were meticulously engraved and inlaid or plated with precious metals. Stocks were decorated using almost any materials available to the gunsmith: antler, bone, pearl, ivory, coral, silver, gold, wire, mixed woods such as fruit trees or ebony, and more. Scrimshaw was also extensively used and stocks were carved into a myriad of shapes that were often more aesthetically pleasing than they were ergonomic or functional.

The wheellocks in Rock Island Auction Company's 2016 April Premiere Firearms Auction are no exception to these high levels of craftsmanship and beauty. Many are above and beyond what would be considered outstanding examples. We leave you with more photos of the fine wheellock arms appearing in this sale.
Lot 1293: Rare and Unusual All Metal Decorative Wheellock Smooth Bore Carbine with Extensive Medieval Manerist Themed Engraving and Unique Pierced Hollow Metal Stock

Lot 1299: Attractive Wheellock Rifle with Elaborate Scrimshawed Bone Inlays

Lot 1291: Austrian Wheellock Rifle with Elaborate Scrimshawed Bone Inlays

Lot 1297: 17th Century Italian Masterpieces: Beautiful, Important and Well Documented High Art Pair of Mannerist Relief Chiseled and Gold Gilt Wheelock Belt Pistols

Lot 1295: Pair of Wheellock Pistols with Extensive Renaissance Revival Scrimshaw Inlays

-Written by Joel R. Kolander